Aram Bakshian Jr., a White House speechwriter for Richard Nixon and brother of my old friend Doug – a globetrotting freelance journalist – has written on the World War I memorial design competition. His piece, “A War Memorial Design Competition for Monumental Egos,” in the Wall Street Journal, bears the curious subtitle: “The finalists for a national World War I memorial are disappointing. ‘Attack of the Mole People,’ anyone?”
Bakshian criticizes four of the five finalists as modernist, a description that pegs them as lacking any degree of seriousness, and he is correct in that analysis. He makes light of the modernist entries but also criticizes the one classical entry, by Devin Kimmel of Annapolis. Kimmel’s proposal features a modest tower in a park that speaks of society’s descent into war, without the mawkish sentimentality or holier-than-thou cant that characterizes many modernist war-memorial proposals – when their symbolic voice is capable of interpretation, which it frequently is not.
All seem to have some subterranean aspect to their design – one was composed largely of tiny family museums burrowed into the ground. Assuming thought was given at all, these declivitous aspects may have referred to the infamous WWI trenches. Hence “Attack of the Mole People.” Kimmel’s has an eternal flame sitting inside a “grotto.”
Bakshian calls the one classical finalist “the best of the worst,” which is literally accurate but hardly fair. Kimmel’s classical entry is so far superior to the other four that such a glib formulation mischaracterizes its quality. (My judgment here is so plainly obvious that I hesitate to give the usual “conflict of interest” trigger, that I have been paid to write press releases for Kimmel after he became a finalist.) Here is what Bakshian writes:
Only one of the proposals for the World War I monument, the best of the worst, is recognizable as a memorial to fallen heroes. It’s an attempt at heroic neoclassicism and, in the words of architectural critic Catesby Leigh, “features a large mass that resembles a hybrid of monumental arch and super-sized tombstone.” But it is busy, overloaded with verbiage, partially obscured by trees and incorporates the now-hackneyed device of yet another “eternal flame.”
This critique, despite my objection to “the best of the worst,” is generally fair. I hope that it will be improved in the time remaining before the jury reaches its verdict. Frankly, I think that Kimmel would have to impose many major new flaws upon his design to give any of the other entries a chance. I did not realize that Kimmel’s design had an eternal flame. He should get rid of it. It would only add to maintenance costs. In a post soon after the jury selected its five finalists, I urged Kimmel to make the transition to the base of the tower more explicit in the types of masonry he uses to denote degeneration.
Bakshian has been criticized for his tart dismissal of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial as “the world’s largest obituary page.” That is a fair description. Even if it fails to gainsay its popularity among Vietnam vets, it is still fair. Noting Frank Gehry’s self-infatuated design for a memorial to Ike, Bakshian traces memorial architects’ refusal to subordinate their egos to their subject back to Lin’s black gash near the Mall. I suspect it may be traced back further. What is unfair is Bakshian’s description of the national World War II memorial, also on the Mall, by Rhode Island architect Friedrich St. Florian. He writes:
The enormous World War II Memorial by Friedrich St. Florian completed in 2004, with its neoclassic pillars and triumphal arches surrounding a large pool symbolic of nothing in particular, could easily be mistaken for a piece of 1930s Italian or German fascist triumphalism.
That hackneyed criticism of St. Florian’s monument as “fascist” is so ubiquitous that one almost forgives Bakshian for accidentally slipping into a modernist time warp. It qualifies for inclusion in a latter-day version of Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas” published at the end of the Penguin edition of Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which he instructs readers how to discuss difficult topics (alphabetized) in polite society.
Bakshian does not have quite as much fun with the modernist entries as Catesby Leigh did in his critique for National Review. It is not possible to take any of them seriously, but the depth of deserved ridicule is difficult to achieve. Readers may link to Leigh’s essay from my post “Catesby Leigh’s WWI faves.” My entry in that competition, “Finalists for WWI memorial,” actually gave the modernist entries credit for not being as silly as were almost all of the non-traditional among the 350 entries. How big of me!